4 Strategies for Providing Effective Feedback to Difficult Peopleby@vinitabansal
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4 Strategies for Providing Effective Feedback to Difficult People

by Vinita BansalJune 2nd, 2023
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The best bosses do more than charge up people, and recruit and breed energizers. They eliminate the negative, because even a few bad apples and destructive acts can undermine many good people and constructive acts. Firing should be your last option when nothing else works. Before that, embrace the difficult task of giving feedback to these difficult people.
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Do you have smart, talented, high-potential, or high-performing individuals on your team? Those who have a knack for solving complex problems and those you always seem to rely on when it comes to getting things done.

Their brilliance may be admired by many, but what if they only shine when it comes to independently getting work done? What if your team finds it hard to communicate and collaborate with them which hurts their productivity and performance?

What if they:

  • Demean others when their ideas fall short.
  • Become defensive and take it personally when others disagree with them.
  • Set extremely high standards and expect others to meet them.
  • Express their dissatisfaction by shouting or displaying anger and frustration in their body language.
  • Establish their superiority by interrupting others and not letting them speak.
  • Expect differential treatment and do not follow good practices in the team.

Being good at what they do does not give them a free pass to bemoan, belittle or act in a thoughtless manner toward others. Everyone deserves respect and no one should be expected to tolerate bad behavior—not even from a brilliant jerk.

So, how do you tell them that their behavior isn’t acceptable and they need to change the way they work with others?

The best bosses do more than charge up people, and recruit and breed energizers. They eliminate the negative, because even a few bad apples and destructive acts can undermine many good people and constructive acts - Robert Sutton

This does not mean you go and get rid of them right away. Firing should be your last option when nothing else works. Before that, embrace the difficult task of giving feedback to these difficult people.

This is where most managers make mistakes. They either let these difficult people have it their way for too long causing damage beyond repair or deliver feedback in a manner that does not land right—they refuse to accept, become defensive, and may even turn bitter which only makes working with them even harder.

Apply these 4 strategies to give feedback to a difficult person without challenging them in a way that makes them quit or creates more trouble.

4 strategies to give feedback to a difficult person

1. Choose words carefully

Words used in communicating feedback hits on a person's emotional system. Saying good things about them evokes happy feelings while conveying difficult feedback triggers negative reactions.

For a difficult person, using certain words to give feedback is a big no-no. They trigger intense negative feelings which puts them on the defensive:

  1. Generalizing words like “always” and “never.”
  2. Enforcing words like can’t, shouldn’t, must, obey, have to.
  3. Words that challenge their character like bad, demanding, unprofessional, rude.
  4. Passing judgment with words like mistake, failure, unacceptable.

Highly educated people also tend to place a great deal of value on logic and discount the importance of emotion. You can’t win a debate with an emotional argument, of course, but conversation is not debate and human beings are inherently illogical. We are emotional creatures. To remove, or attempt to remove, emotion from your conversation is to extract a great deal of meaning and import - Celeste Headlee

In short, be considerate. Think carefully about the effect of what you say and avoid emotionally charged words which makes difficult feedback ineffective.

Examples to avoid trigger words:

Instead of: You always come late to meetings. Your behavior will spoil others in the team too.

Say this: In the last 2 meetings, I noticed that you came 10-15 minutes after the meeting started. How can you come to meetings on time and set a good example for others?

Instead of: You have to let other people speak up in discussions. Not letting others speak is rude.

Say this: Hearing diverse viewpoints will help us make better decisions. How can you encourage more participation from others in discussions?

2. Share observations, don’t pass judgment

When you enter the conversation with a closed mind (I see what’s true and there’s no other way), you leave no room for learning, exploring alternative perspectives, or hearing what the other person has to say.

The person on the receiving end of the feedback can sense you are being judgmental within the first few minutes based on your tone and body language. This makes them either shut up—assuming nothing they say will change your mind—or turn the conversation into an argument—to prove they’re right and you’re wrong.

Respect is like air. As long as it's present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it's all that people can think about. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the original purpose—it is now about defending dignity - Kerry Patterson

While giving feedback to a difficult person, leave your opinions and judgments at the door and enter the discussion with an open mind—think dialogue, not a monologue.

Your purpose is not to make them feel bad, or challenge their behavior or ways of working—that only hurts their ego which makes them resistant to whatever you say.

Instead, do this:

  1. Share your observations. Use words like “I noticed, I heard, I observed, I saw, I was told” and not words like “You have, you did, you said, you made.”
  2. Keep the discussion about the specific behavior, don’t make it about the person.
  3. Stick to facts.
  4. Talk about impact.
  5. Empower them to find a solution.

Making them part of a solution gives them an opportunity to rethink, reevaluate and reconsider. When they don’t feel attacked or ridiculed, they’re more likely to see the impact of their behavior and actions on others.

It’s very hard to listen to somebody if you know you’re being judged and found wanting at the same time — Julian Treasure

Examples to stop being judgmental

Instead of: You shout at others. This is no way to treat them. Learn to control your temper.

Say this: I was told that in the last meeting you raised your voice (fact). This made others in the room reluctant to speak up. Without their contribution and agreement, we cannot make a decision. This will delay the project (impact). What can you do to support others' ideas so that they’re encouraged to share (solution)?

Instead of: You’re very rude and keep interrupting others. This is unacceptable.

Say this: In the last discussion, I noticed that when Rhea was sharing a solution, you interrupted her several times and took over the conversation (fact). When you do not let others complete, they feel unheard which impacts their confidence. We can grow as a team only when everyone in the team feels safe and empowered to share their opinions and make their own decisions (impact). What can you to do enable it (solution)?

Instead of: You told Carl that he’s dumb. What do you think of yourself? You can’t speak to others like this. It’s unprofessional.

Say this: I was told that while reviewing Carl’s design, you called him dumb (fact). Carl is a very dedicated employee who’s always eager to learn. It’s ok to not know something. It does not make a person dumb. Instead of discouraging our people when they don’t know something, we need to encourage them to come forward and learn (impact). Going forward, how can you work with the team in a manner that encourages and not discourages them (solution)?

3. Listen, make them feel heard

Dr. Ralph Nichols who pioneered the study of listening said “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Listening does not imply agreeing to their point of view, it’s just letting them know that you heard them.

Feelings of not being heard trigger negative emotions which cloud their ability to think clearly and participate in a constructive discussion. As soon as they sense disapproval, protective armor goes up to save them from the risk of emotional exposure—they refuse to take responsibility or shift the blame to someone else.

Being heard on the other hand puts their guard down—it makes them accept those fears and lead with curiosity. They’re willing to engage, listen back, and channel their energy in finding a solution as opposed to obsessing about what you said.

True listening involves a setting aside of the self, it also temporarily involves a total acceptance of the others. Sensing this acceptance, the speaker will feel less and less vulnerable, and more and more inclined to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener - M. Scott Peck

In other words, make them feel you have their best interests at heart by actively listening to them.

Here are a few follow-up questions to engage and connect:

  • Tell me more about it.

  • What are your thoughts on it?

  • How would you solve it?

  • Why do you think this happened?

  • What might be an alternative perspective to view it?

  • If you were in this situation, how would you feel?

Giving feedback to a difficult person is easier when you stop pretending to listen and actually make them feel heard.

4. Align on a desired end state

It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. - Jocko Willink

Healthy boundaries are essential for the mental and personal well-being of all employees at work. When these boundaries are exploited by difficult people—either because expectations aren’t being set on what constitutes toxic behavior or because they have a general attitude problem and simply do not care—the more time someone spends around them, the more damage they suffer.

Letting these difficult people stay in the system for too long undermines the effort of many others. Emotional depletion from being around them impacts how they work, what they do and finally what they collectively achieve together.

When you give feedback to a difficult person, don’t just talk about the problem. Align on a desired end state. Put a timestamp on the mutually agreed changes and let them know that they should be willing to face the consequences if they fail to learn and improve.

To do this, say “Let’s make sure we are on the same page. In [this much time], you’ll [state the expectations]. I am here to help you if you want to discuss anything further. However, be aware that I do not take this lightly and there will be consequences if things do not improve.”


  1. Difficult people—especially those who are also doing well at work—are bad when it comes to receiving feedback.
  2. To have an effective conversation, be careful about the words you choose. Emotionally charged words can trigger negative emotions and put them on the defensive.
  3. Difficult people will react poorly to feedback which comes across as a judgment. Instead share your observations, talk about the impact and invite them to come up with a solution.
  4. When you’re the one doing all the speaking, the other person does not feel heard. Pause and listen to them. Give them the space to think, reflect and come up with their own solution.
  5. Don’t leave the feedback without clear expectations on the desired changes, timeline and repercussions of not taking the feedback seriously.

Previously published here.